George McGinnis: Would You Believe . . . A Strong Julius Erving . . . A Tall Elgin Baylor? 

[Our subject today is the great George McGinnis. Injuries, turnover, poor team “fits,” and other factors never brought him up to par with Elgin Baylor or Julius Erving. At least not his full body of ABA and NBA work.. But like watching Zion Williamson today and his explosive talent around the rim, McGinnis could take your breath away, too, bulling his way to the basket holding the ball in one hand like a grapefruit. 

To help tell McGinnis’ story, we’ve got two fantastic clips from his second season with the ABA Indiana Pacers. Up first is an article (and source of the headline above) from the incomparable Peter Vecsey, who continues to roll out must-hear podcasts du jour with the NBA Retired Players Association. Be sure to check him out. Vecsey wrote this article du jour for SPORT Magazine. I’ll intro the second article further down when you get there. Take it away, Peter Vecsey!]

George McGinnis, moving with the ball, raced down the court, reached the corner and suddenly stopped. His sneakers made a screeching sound like tires grabbing the concrete on a highway. He spun his sweating, 6-foot-8 and 238-pound body away from the congested corner and soared toward the middle, the ball palmed in his bony right hand, his fingers are long and strong as railroad spikes. Seemingly suspended in mid-air, McGinnis put up a soft, one-handed jump shot. It went in, of course. 

The New York Net guarding McGinnis just shook his head. How can you stop a man who has everything?

George McGinnis, the second-year forward of the Indiana Pacers, has everything. He’s not usually quite so flashy as he was in that spectacular move against the Nets, but he has strength, he has size, he has speed, he has quickness, he has agility, and he has body control. He also has a tendency to make flagrant mental and mechanical errors on the court, which is understandable. He is only 22 years old; he left Indiana University after his sophomore season. 

Yet at the age of 22, McGinnis has already been compared—favorably—with a man many considered the finest and most complete forward in basketball history—Elgin Baylor. “If George had played his last two years in college, I think he would have entered pro ball a better player than Baylor was as a rookie,” says Bob Leonard, the Indiana coach. Leonard is in a perfect position to make the comparison; he was a guard with the then-Minneapolis Lakers when Baylor came out of Seattle University and joined the Lakers 15 years ago. 

Babe McCarthy is also qualified—and eager—to make the comparison. McCarthy spent six seasons—including McGinnis’ rookie season—coaching in the ABA. Earlier, when Elgin Baylor was at Seattle, McCarthy coached Mississippi State. 

“I went out to the NCAA tournament in 1958,” McCarthy recalls, “when I got back, I told my guys, ‘Boys, I just saw the greatest forward ever played the game. And none of you ever heard of him.’

“Baylor had everything—speed, strength, and that ability to hang suspended in the air. Just fabulous body control. I thought then he’d always be the best.

“But McGinnis just may be better before he’s through. He’s young yet, and he’s got a lot to learn, and he’s got to avoid injuries, which Baylor didn’t. But he’s taller than Baylor and stronger, and I think he may be quicker. Elgin probably had a little better outside shot, and a little better body control. But the difference isn’t that great.”

McGinnis has also been measured against the best young forward in his own league—Julius Erving. He certainly does not have Erving’s variety of moves, but his other gifts awe Dr. J. himself. “I’ve always been amazed watching him move,” says Erving. “He’s the quickest player I’ve ever seen for such a big dude. He’s got deceptive speed. When he goes to the hoop, he carries four or five guys with them, just by the vacuum he creates.”

McGinnis does have the slender Dr. J. beat in at least one respect—sheer strength. “I swear the guy’s been baling hay all this life,” said Jim Chones, the Net rookie, staring at McGinnis’ shoulders. 

His ABA statistics are almost as impressive as his shoulders. During the 1972-73 season, McGinnis averaged 27.6 points a game, second in the league only to Julius Erving, and more then 12 rebounds, most of them at the offensive end of the court. 

Still, the most remarkable McGinnis statistic is his age and his relative inexperience. The past year, when he was intimidating ABA opponents, he could have been a senior at Indiana—playing along with Steve Downing and Quinn Buckner and the rest of the Hoosier lineup. By turning pro after averaging 30 points a game as a sophomore, McGinnis may have saved the sanity of every coach in the Big Ten. He may also have saved UCLA’s 75-game winning streak; there are people who suspect that Indiana, with McGinnis, could have defeated UCLA in the semifinals. McGinnis himself does not agree. 

“If I could’ve adjusted to Bobby Knight’s coaching style,” George says, “we would have had a great team. But I doubt I could have adjusted. I probably couldn’t have worked the ball around so much, the way he likes. I believe in a good shot, too, but I also believe in getting it off as soon as possible.”

McGinnis has few regrets about missing the 1973 NCAA playoffs. “There were a few moments, watching the Indiana-UCLA game on TV, when I wished I could’ve been out on the floor,” he says, “but they passed quickly. Don’t forget, if I were in college now, I’d be $200,000 or $300,000 poorer.”

If McGinnis were a few hundred thousand dollars poorer, he wouldn’t have the three show horses, his two quarter horses, his 19-foot boat, his 1973 Cadillac or his daily five-minute radio show. And his mother and sister wouldn’t have the spacious house George has built for them. “It’s a good feeling,” he says, “to be able to buy things you used to look at in magazines and never dreamed you’d be able to own.”

Not that McGinnis’ family was ever desperately poor. His father was a construction worker. There was always food on the table, and the children always had clothes. But there were no luxuries. 

McGinnis was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and when he was only two, his family moved to Indianapolis. He grew up on the predominantly black West Side. “There were a lot of swimming holes around,” McGinnis says, “and I love to swim and I love to boat. We couldn’t afford a boat, but there was always a friend to take me out in his.”

In Indiana, basketball is a religion, and in Indianapolis, which produced Oscar Robertson among many stars, the religion is practiced with total faith. As far back as McGinnis can remember, he wanted to be a professional basketball player. He went to Washington High School and starred in both football and basketball. McGinnis was an All-American high school end, so strong and gifted some 200 colleges contacted him about playing college football. But the thought of becoming a pro football player never entered his mind. “It’s too rough,” George says. 

Besides, as good as he was in football, McGinnis was even better in basketball. His senior year, then 6-foot-7, McGinnis led Washington High School to a 31-0 record and the state championship. In the annual series between Indiana and Kentucky high school stars, McGinnis did only a fair job in the first game—by his standards. He scored more than 20 points, but the Kentuckian who guarded him said McGinnis was overrated, not as tough as he was cracked up to be. 

“I got really angry,” Georgia recalls. In the second game of the series, he scored 53 points and took down 30 rebounds. No one had ever put on such a performance in more than a quarter of a century of the series—not Robertson, not the Van Arsdales, not Wes Unseld, not Frank Ramsey, not anyone. Three hundred colleges wanted George McGinnis to come play basketball.

But tragedy marred the triumphs of George’s senior year. His father, at work, fell off a scaffold and died. “His death affected me a great deal,” says McGinnis. “It really got me down for a while. But I’ve learned to live with it.”

George enrolled at Indiana, following his high school coach there, but because his college board marks had been low, he was not eligible to play basketball his freshman year. Yet he was selected at the end of the year to go with a team of collegians on a State Department-sponsored tour of Europe.

The team included such prominent college players as Jim McDaniels, Jim Cleamons, John Mengelt, and Cliff Meely. When they played in Italy, France, Romania, Switzerland, Austria, and Yugoslavia—plus a pair of exhibitions against the Baltimore Bullets—McGinnis found out exactly how good he was. He was very good. 

“The Bullets had guys like Unseld, Gus Johnson, and John Tresvant,” McGinnis says, “and I was holding my own with them on the boards.” Although most of his teammates were upperclassmen, McGinnis led the Americans in scoring and rebounding. 

The upperclassmen spent much of their spare time sitting around and talking about the lucrative pro contracts they were going to sign. McGinnis listened, decided he was as good or better than any of them and began thinking that maybe he should turn professional before an NBA-ABA merger, a merger that would cut his bargaining power. 

When he returned home, McGinnis contacted an old friend, Gary Donna, his former grammar school coach. Donna had become an athletes’ representative, an agent. Donna and McGinnis agreed that if he had a strong season as an Indiana sophomore, he might be able to attract a handsome pro contract.

McGinnis had the strong season, and the professional opportunities came up. The Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls also showed considerable interest in McGinnis, but George decided that he would be better off in the long run if he could become a star in his hometown. He got a three-year, $350,000 contract from the Pacers and immediate offers for endorsements. 

“I wasn’t a hardship case,” McGinnis says. “I didn’t have to turn pro for my family. The insurance money was adequate after my father died. But I didn’t want to get devalued when and if the leagues merged.”

When McGinnis joined the Pacers, they were a veteran team which had won the ABA championship two seasons back. Some of the veterans naturally resented George’s fat contract and his commercial opportunities. There was friction and there was dissension, especially when McGinnis, after recovering from the pair of ankle sprains that kept him inactive for a month, displaced veteran Bob Netolicky in the starting lineup. The Pacers lost 10 more games in 1971-72 than they had the previous year; they finished far behind Utah in the ABA’s Western Division. “The bad thing was we had so much talent, we didn’t know what to do with it,” says McGinnis. “Fortunately, we worked things out before the playoffs.”

McGinnis, who had averaged 17 points (including 58 one night) and nine rebounds a game during the regular season, had some super games in the playoffs. Once, against Utah in the Western finals, McGinnis came up with 28 points and 20 rebounds. Once, against the New York Nets in the ABA finals, he had a 30-point, 20-rebound night. Indiana swept to the ABA championship. McGinnis collected a star sapphire, 18-diamond championship ring. “That’s what it’s all about: winning,” says McGinnis. “The first time is the best. The others will be good, too, but there’s something about that first one that really turns you on.”

In 1972-73, McGinnis was a starter from the first day of the season; the Pacers traded Netolicky to Dallas before the season opened. For the second year in a row, despite an 11-game winning streak near the end of the season, the Pacers finished second to Utah in the ABA West. 

Everyone agreed that McGinnis had an outstanding year scoring and rebounding. But he managed to set a record in only one department—in errors, personal mistakes resulting in turnovers. Until last season, the ABA record for errors was 356, set by Larry Brown (now the coach at Carolina and, like any good coach, intolerant of errors by his players). McGinnis didn’t just break Brown’s record. He smashed it. He ruined it. He committed 401 errors, an average of more than five a game. “What the errors tell you is that I’m in too much of a hurry,” says McGinnis. 

The errors are one good reason why McGinnis might be in a hurry to jump to the rival National Basketball Association. He would never set a record for errors in the NBA, for a good reason: they don’t tabulate errors in the NBA. 

Other people have suggested another reason why McGinnis might, before long, switch leagues: he might want to test himself against the best competition. McGinnis dismisses this argument. “I don’t look at a ballplayer and say, ‘I’m better than him,’ or ‘he’s better than so-and-so,’” says McGinnis. “It’s a business, and we’re all here to make a living. If a guy can make a good living in the NBA, I’m all for him. If you can make it here, I’m all for him.”

During the 1972-73 season, there were rumors that McGinnis might be heading toward the Boston Celtics. Phoenix and Chicago are still interested in him, and someday he may go to the NBA. 

But until that day, McGinnis will score and he will rebound. He will try to bring his defensive rebounding up to the level of his offensive rebounding, bring his general defense up to the level of his general offense and perhaps cut down on the double-pump moves that are better suited to a guard like Earl Monroe than a 6-foot-8 forward. 

It will be interesting to see just how good George McGinnis becomes next season. It’s a significant year. It’s the year in which he would’ve come out of college. By logic, George McGinnis should be just a rookie. Instead, he’s a full-fledged superstar. 

[The next article is a classic quick read, but it’s very well done. It comes from Larry Fortner, then covering the Pacers for the Indianapolis News. Fortner, who passed away in 2016 from cancer, would relocate in the late 1970s to Duluth, where he spent the remainder of his prodigious journalism career. His article on McGinnis ran in the Indianapolis News on March 29, 1973. The headline: ‘I’m Just a Man Like Anyone Else.’]

When the big guy walked into the cocktail lounge, his massive frame filled the doorway, temporarily shutting out the light from the outside. Heads turned to watch. Eyes followed his progress to the bar. When you’re 6-foot-8, you weigh about 235 pounds, you’re black and you’re in Salt Lake City, you’re noticed.

If your name is George McGinnis, you’re not left alone either. “Hey, George, what’s a basketball player doing smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer?”

“Why not?” he asks back with a smile (he smiles a lot, even at dumb questions; no one was ever stupid enough to try to intimidate him). “I’m just a man, like anyone else.”

Well, almost like anyone else. When it comes to basketball, this second-year pro with the Indiana Pacers is extraordinarily talented for the boys’ game that he plays with other men against other men. 

But being a superstar isn’t all fun and games. “Pro basketball actually is a show,” he said last week in a Denver coffee shop. “You’re on display. 

“I didn’t feel that way in high school or college. It was the greatest thing in the world to put on a suit. We’d just go out and play for fun. But now it’s a business. The whole object is winning. 

“Don’t get me wrong—I still enjoy it. Playing in Indiana helps a lot. At least when you’re playing at home, you’ve got somebody there cheering for you. In Indiana, if you’re down, the crowd helps you get up. If I had to play in a place like Dallas all the time (where Texans stayed away from the Chaparral games by the thousands), I’d be miserable.”

Being “on display” isn’t all bad. 

“I enjoy turning on a crowd,” Big George admitted. “If I can fire up the crowd by stuffing the ball or putting on a good move, I’ll do it.”

But there have been times, especially last season and early this season, when McGinnis’ flashy tactics drew criticism from Pacer coach Bobby Leonard. (“If he’d cut out that Globetrotter stuff, he’d be a more effective basketball player,” Leonard has said.)

“It’s not showboat,” McGinnis insists. “It’s how I express myself on the basketball floor. Julius Erving probably has more fun and gets more personal satisfaction out of playing the game than anyone else. He does a lot of spectacular things, but he’s not a showboat. That’s just his game. 

“When I was a kid, playing at places like Lockefield Gardens, you had to be able to do those things. Everyone else could dribble between his legs and behind his back, so you’d better be able to do it, too. If you couldn’t, they’d just send you home.”

Unlike Erving, who’ll murder you with his left hand if he hasn’t already killed you with his right, McGinnis is almost exclusively a right-handed scorer. He averaged more than 30 points a game early this season when his left index finger was dislocated and in a protective aluminum splint. 

“Holding the ball in one hand is an advantage. When I’ve got the ball in one hand, that means the other hand is free.”

He must have the sneakiest free hand in the business. Watch it closely sometime. While his right hand is shooting, his left arm is extended to keep defenders at their distance, sometimes fending off a push, sometimes pushing back. 

And you have to be real sharp to catch this one. Sometimes when McGinnis goes into a crowd for a shot, he’ll jump, shoot, slap his thigh with his left hand, and yell in pain. More than one American Basketball Association ref has been fooled by that one. 

But there are rewards for being so good. At $100,000 per annum (at least), even an exhausting season must seem worthwhile. And his price will go up after next season when his present contract has expired. 

The question at that time will be who he’ll play for. Chicago and Phoenix of the National Basketball Association have expressed serious interest in paying for his basketball services. The Pacers would be crazy to let him go. Whatever the outcome, he’ll need both hands to rake in the money.   

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